Gender Theory / Gender Theory

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Gender studies for the null

Sandrine Teixido, Héloïse Lhérété and Martine Fournier

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Should we teach gender studies (renamed "gender theory" by their opponents) at school? The controversy over this issue reveals the ambivalent relationship that France has with regard to Gender studies, field of study born in the United States, always suspected of being part of a militant, feminist, homosexual and transsexual approach. In fact, gender studies are a multidisciplinary field of research that can be traced back to genesis, developments, references and issues. Which act.

The concept of "gender" was born in the United States in the 1970 years of thinking about sex and gender relations. The feminist movement, which has grown after the sexual revolution, seeks to make its voice heard in research institutions. It is about recognizing a commitment that is more and more a renewed reflection on the world.

He is a psychologist, Robert Stoller (1), Which popularizes in 1968 a notion already used by his American colleagues since the beginning of the 1950 years to understand the separation in some patients between body and identity. Hence the idea that there is no real correspondence between gender (male / female) and gender (male / female). From 1972, drawing on the articulation between nature and culture developed by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, The British sociologist Anne Oakley (2) returns sex to the biological and gender to the cultural.

American scholars deny that women and nature are often closer together (mainly because of their reproductive powers), while men are on the side of culture. A resounding article published in 1974 by the anthropologist Sherry Ortner (3) makes the terms particularly explicit: "Woman is to man what nature is to culture? " In anthropology, it is Margaret Mead That comes an initial reflection on the sexual roles in the 1930 years (4). The study of the roles assigned to individuals according to the sexes and of the characters properly feminine and masculine allows us to discern the learning of what has been given by nature.

Object and genesis of a field of research

Once gender is distinguished from sex, researchers focus on male / female relationships. The American historian Joan W. Scott (5) encourages us to look beyond mere opposition between the sexes. This must be considered as "problematic" and constitute, as such, a research subject. If the masculine and the feminine oppose one another in a problematic way, it is because between them there are relations of power where one dominates the other.

But if gender is immediately thought of as a social construct, it is not the same for sex, seen as a natural datum or more likely "unthought". This is the historian Thomas Laqueur Which will demonstrate the historically constructed character of sex and its articulation with gender. In The Sex Factory (1992), it highlights the coexistence (or even the predominance of the first over the second) of two biological systems. Thus, for a long time, the body was seen as unisex and the female sex was a "lesser male" while we would have passed in the nineteenth century to a system based on the biological difference of the sexes.

Once sex has become as culturally as gender, sexuality becomes the object of reflection in the eyes of researchers. The influence of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (especially in the 1980 decade during which his works were translated in the United States) is essential here. Gender is thus articulated with power and its "mise en discours" and then linked to the analysis of sexuality and its norms.

The end of the 1980 years saw the beginning of institutionalization. Borrowed from psychological and medical vocabulary through sociology, the term gains other disciplines like history. Before gender became a tool of analysis, the history of women sought to bring out previously unseen stories, even if it were to present women in an essentialistic way, that is, with their own characteristics And immutable, such as emotional qualities. Gender analysis brings back the allegedly feminine specificities in the light of a given moment and society. Thus, gender studies will recognize the socially constructed nature of historical data on women as well as data on men. If gender makes visible the female sex, it implies that man is no longer neutral and general but a sexed individual. From this observation could develop a history of men and masculinities, Mainly around the American journal Men and Masculinities Headed by Michael Kimmel.

Questions around gender, by their clear deviation from the middle of the 1980 years towards sexuality, contributed to divide feminists into two clans. The most radical have tried to show the oppressive character of the sexual hierarchy in terms of sexuality with a systematic advantage attributed to man, considered in its entirety as a dominant male.

Enlargement to sexual minorities

Others, like the Americans Gayle Rubin et Judith Butler, show that the relationship between the sexes does not only imply a hierarchy between genres but also a normative injunction. In 1984, G. Rubin (6) Broadens the theoretical reflection to sexualities that escape the norm like sadomasochism or pornography. J. Butler (7), In 1990, attempts to take a cross-sectional look that includes women, Gay Boys And lesbians than other minorities that can not be reduced to any of the first two categories. For J. Butler, if sex is as much cultural as gender, it is understood as a performative discourse on which action can be taken and thus habitus imposed by the company.

This analytical grid expands research to minorities such as homosexuals, lesbians or transgender people. Gender studies can exist in their own right, since oppression no longer concerns women alone, domination coming not only from men but from the heterosexual system. The studies gay And lesbians, and later theory, will insist on an analysis of the norm imposed on gender or not. Thus, the case of lesbians can be analyzed from a gender perspective, as women, as the standard, as deviant. Movement queer Plays with the multiplicity of sexual identities established according to necessities and contingencies.

Similarly, the work of the American historian George Chauncey (8) On culture gay New York during the interwar years crosses the parameters of gender and sexuality in a fruitful way. It shows how we moved from a system in which the homosexual relationship was based on male / female identities (only the two men who exhibited feminine behavior were stigmatized) to a system where homosexuality is judged by yardstick Of heterosexuality. In the second case (corresponding to the current period), all homosexuals are stigmatized with regard to their sexuality. The historian also uncovered a coexistence of the two systems in contemporary New York where some Latino communities would continue to function according to a genre binarism.

The French graft

The concept of gender has had difficulties to set up in France, mainly because of a mistrust of American feminism deemed too communitarian and radical. During the 1980 years, the French university sought to guard against politics. By their necessary passage through militancy, feminist studies thus moved away from the research framework.

The terms "sex relations" or "social sex relations" have long been preferred to the concept of gender, which is considered too vague. This vocabulary is in line with the feminist materialist approach influenced by the Marxist school that characterizes the first generation of researchers in the 1970 years, with sociologists Christine Delphy, Nicole-Claude Mathieu et Colette Guillaumin.

They join the work of denaturalization initiated by the American academics, mainly through the questioning of domestic work as natural activity of the woman.

C. Delphy center his reflection on oppression as a social construct. It opposes a differentialism and identity vision that sees women as a homogenous group with specifically feminine characteristics. It reverses the initial problematic: masculinity and femininity can not explain hierarchy and domination, no less than sex would explain gender.

Groups of men and women have been formed only because the social institution of the hierarchy (and by that means the social organization) is a primary principle, just as it is the kind that gives meaning to the physical characteristic of sex (which does not contain any sense in itself).

The concept of gender really began to spread in France in the mid-nineteenth century when the European Community addressed gender and gender issues in the search for effective equality. Starting with 1990, the debates on parity encourage work on gender to take into account the political field. As early as the 1993 years, the Janine Mossuz-Lavau (9) on the visibility of women in relation to voting, elections and eligibility allowed a first rapprochement between gender studies and the political field.

The sociology of work will finally convince people of the need to take gender into account in a systematic way. In this context, during the 1990 years, the creation of specific research modules such as Mage (Labor Market and Gender) around the sociologist Margaret Maruani who, after having been interested in the sexual division of labor, analyzes today the sexual division of the labor market.

Whether in history, anthropology or today in most social sciences, in France, gender is the object of growing interest within the university while in the United States, the concept used To the contrary seems to have lost its provocative power and its heuristic value, ie it no longer allows us to discover new avenues of research or to take a fresh look at classical themes. Young French researchers interested in this theme are all the more enthusiastic because they find themselves free from militancy which hampers the recognition of their predecessors. In this sense, their main issue is to give gender a theoretical status devoid of ideology in the human sciences.

This text is an updated version of the article "Gender Studies" published in Social science, No. 157, February 2005.

Theories of the genre: French references

Simone de Beauvoir: the denunciation of a hierarchy

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) analyzes the sociological, psychological and economic modalities of the hierarchy between the sexes and shows the universality of men's domination over women, and invites them to use their freedom to escape Role of servant and mother. Published in 1953 in the United States, this book will become a classic of feminism and a reference in the reflection on gender.

1949: The Second Sex

Michel Foucault: the construct of standards

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) becomes a powerful reference, providing tools used by American researchers to question gender and gender. His work will be taken up by the proponents of the theory queer. His works reveal the built character of heterosexual normativity.

1969: The Archeology of Knowledge.
1976-1984: History of sexuality.

Pierre Bourdieu: the implacable male domination

For the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), who throughout his work has endeavored to describe the relations of domination in society and the ensuing symbolic violence, women have integrated habits (behaviors more or less Consciousness and modes of thought) of sex and, at the same time, work for their own domination. Male domination thus becomes a "Naturalized social construction" Which, despite the movement of women, is not ready to disappear. This analysis has provoked the indignation of many feminists.

1998: The Male Domination.

Elisabeth Badinter: equality first and foremost

Elisabeth Badinter defends an egalitarian conception of both sexes throughout her work. Maternal love would have nothing natural or instinctive (Love more. History of motherly love 17th-18th century, 1980); Each sex has its share of masculinity or femininity, and societies are increasingly androgynous. In the debate on gender equality, she was one of the opponents of any discriminatory measures against women. In Wrong way, It sets itself up against the victim tendencies of feminists and reaffirms its rejection of any differentiation.

1986: One is the other

Françoise Héritier: a "differential valence of the sexes"

In Male Female. The thought of difference (1996), Francoise Héritier noted the universal character of masculine domination, the hierarchy of men and women and what she calls a 'Differential valence of the sexes ". In a second volume, she deduces the conditions of a real change for women who, according to her, takes root in the control by women of their fertility through contraception.

2002: Male Female. Dissolve the hierarchy.

Martine Fournier

Gender theories: American references

Margaret Mead: a cultural construct

In the very puritanical America of the 1930 years, anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), figurehead of culturalism, fights the notion of "eternal feminine". From her field studies in Oceania, she emphasizes the cultural character and constructs of gender identities: in some ethnic groups, passivity and sensitivity are masculine characteristics ... She resumes her demonstration, based on the observation of the American society.

1948: One and the other sex.

Carol Gilligan: a differentialism psychology

According to Carol Gilligan, American psychologist, professor at New York University, women and men have different psychological functions. She is particularly interested in conceptions of morality in both sexes: the woman has a "Ethics of solicitude" (Empathy, protection, altruism) while man would have a "Ethics of justice" (equality of people, respect for the law), while being concerned about their hierarchical status and their personal success.

1986: Such a big difference.

Luce Irigaray: the psychoanalytic challenge

Representative? with Hélène Cixous? From the challenge of psychoanalysis as a patriarchal discipline, Luce Irigaray denounces the male imperialism of Western philosophy. Her quest for a new ethic of sex finds a powerful echo among radical feminist representatives across the Atlantic.

1974: Speculum. Of the other woman.

Women's studies

In the 1960-1970 years, Women's studies are developing in American universities with their research laboratories, their journals and their editions ... Strongly linked to the feminist movement of the time, most of them embody a "radical" feminism, strongly tainted by a differentialism that pleads for a separation of the sexes.

Joan Scott: gender and French feminism

The American historian Joan Scott, a professor in Princeton, proposed a rigorous definition of the notion of gender that allowed her to be better accepted by French researchers. In the wake of Michel Foucault and the philosophers of deconstruction, it presents post-structuralism as a tool to re-analyze historical, social and cultural phenomena in the light of discourses and representations of the difference between the sexes (this current is called in the United States, United French feminism). She is also the author of several books that analyze the contradictions of French republican universalism.

2005: Parity! The universal and the difference of the sexes.

Judith Butler: the queer theory

Professor of Comparative Literature in Berkeley, California, Judith Butler becomes, along with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the theoretician of movement queer. It opposes feminists who define women as a group with common characteristics, thus reinforcing the heterosexual and binary model. Considering gender as a fluid variable, subject to change according to context and time, J. Butler calls for subversive action, "Gender disorder", Which invites to maintain a confusion and a profusion of identities. For her, gender identity can be constantly reinvented by the actors themselves.

2005: Trouble in the genre. For a feminism of subversion.

Martine Fournier


Gender studies

From the 1980 years, work on women revolves around the notion of gender. How did the representations of each of the sexes participate in male domination? Inequalities in society? From the political exclusion of women? ...

In the United States, then in France and in many other countries, there has been an explosion of research over the past few years analyzing the differences in treatment between men and women in all areas of the human and social sciences: history, sociology, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis, economics, political science, geography ... or even multidisciplinary work.

At the same time, gender studies are generating new research trends:

- men's studies (on the construction of masculinity and masculinity);
- gay and lesbian studies (on homosexuality);
- queer studies.


Of Anglo-Saxon origin (gender), the term was first used in the medical sciences, psychology and sociology, then promoted by women's history since the 1980 years. In France, he has long been preferred expressions like "social sex" or "social difference of the sexes". Now widespread, the concept of gender is part of a constructivist perspective that analyzes gender differences (inequalities, hierarchies, male domination ...) as social and cultural constructions, and not as arising from the differences in nature.

Differentialist Feminism

Branch of the feminist movement that postulates a difference of nature between the masculine and the feminine. There is thus a "feminine essence", from which specific and innate feminine characters (feminine behaviors, feminine writing, etc.) would arise and which justify differences in treatment between the sexes. Sometimes called "essentialist" (especially by their detractors), feminist differentialists claim equality in difference.

Feminism egalitarianism

For egalitarian feminists, also called "universalists", all human beings are equal individuals, regardless of differences in physical traits such as skin color or sex. The differences between men and women are therefore the result of power relations and domination. The subordination of women is a social production and any affirmation of female specificity risks giving a guarantee to a hierarchy. Gender must be dissociated from social, political and symbolic roles in society.


The term " queer "Appears in the United States from the inter-war period and denotes pejoratively homosexual behavior particularly effeminate. Today, the term refers to a theory that challenges any norm, be it gender or gender. To thwart identities, queers are working to blur all classifications: heterosexual or homosexual sexuality, gay, lesbian, transgender, masculine-feminine ..., to insist on the plasticity of the sex-gender relationship. Identity is no longer an essence but a performance, it is vague, bizarre and unclassifiable ...

Martine Fournier


1.R. Stoller, Sex and Gender, Hogarth, 1968.

2.A. Oakley, Sex, Gender, and Society, TempleSmith, 1972.

3.S. Ortner, "Is female to male as culture is to nature? In M. Zimbalist Ronaldo and L. Lamphere, Woman, Culture, and Society, Stanford University Press, 1974.

4.Mr. Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935, reed. Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1980.

5.JW Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, Columbia University Press, 1988.

6.G. Rubin, Thinking Sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality, Routledge and Kegan, 1984.

7.J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 1990.

8.G. Chauncey, Gay New York, 1890-1940, Fayard, 2003.

9.J. Mossuz-Lavau and M. Sineau, Survey of women and politics in France, Puf, 1983.

June 11, 2017